Last year, we started hosting candid conversations with Black women in our community, through which we explored their relationships with their bodies and the experiences that have shaped their perceptions of beauty and self. In this excerpt from our conversation, Claudia Owusu talks about her journey from Ghana to the United States, and what beauty means in the context of living between these two worlds.
What are some of your earliest memories or experiences that shaped your concept of beauty?
When I was in Ghana, there was this hispanic soap opera called Rosalinda. And she had this long, flowing hair and the intro would be her running and her hair flowing behind her. So when I think back, that was probably what I thought was beautiful: long, flowing hair. My mom is also light-skinned. All the women on her side are light-skinned and they all look alike, so I remember—and I didn’t grow up with her—I remember always showing people [photos of] my mother and people being shocked like “That’s your mother? You look nothing like her.” And it was just like, her as this woman who is really beautiful vs. me as like a darker, different thing that doesn’t really look like her, and so then being kind of not pretty by default.
You lived in Ghana until you were…?
It’s interesting what happens in those formative years. I don’t think we realize how impressionable we are. What was your experience like moving from Ghana to the United States?
In Ghana, it was pretty normal, I felt, to go to school, you speak English in school, they call you your English name at school. You come home, they’re calling you your Twi name or you’re speaking Twi. Or just going to class, and speaking English in class, but then during recess, speaking Twi with my friends. So it was like stepping in between worlds, in that sense. Even though I didn’t really know anything about colonization back then, or why were speaking English at school, or why we weren’t allowed to speak Twi in classrooms. I think that my friends and I kind of just mastered what it meant to dive in between worlds.
When I came to America, I remember the first day of school and my dad dropping my brother and I off, and then just turning around and going. And like, my eyes watered—I don’t even know why—I was like what is going on? So I walked into my class, because my brother and I—ever since I lived with him in Ghana, we’d always gone to the same school, been in the same classroom. So it was like here we were, with him being in a different class. He’s older than me by a year, but in Ghana we were in the same grade. But in America, it was like he’s older than you so you guys are in different grades now. So that was like interesting to then like just be alone. So when I walked into class—my teacher was white, but it was a predominantly black elementary school. So then I had to introduce myself, so I introduced myself and they were like “Tell them where you’re from.” And I was like I’m from Ghana. And it was like “Where is Ghana?” So then just kind of like stepping into a space where no one really knew where I was from, and then having to tell people and show people.
And then I think, just like already, I just felt—I don’t think I felt inherently aware of my blackness, or just any type of beauty standard. I was more so just infatuated by like how, maybe a month ago I was in another country, and then it’s like here I am in a new country. It was just weird. I thought white people, or just like the concept of having so many white people around me, was also really, really interesting. But as far as like beauty goes, I mean I did see the light skinned girls being the one that got the attention from boys, and things of that nature.
But I think just in that first year, I was in my own world. I felt like I was the most natural version of myself, where I had just kind of transferred whoever I was in Ghana to whoever I was in America. And it was—I did it without care of like how people interpreted who I was. Or even with my accent, it never really offended me in that first year if people were making fun of me. But I think later on, as I started to shift my perspective towards what was cool and what was uncool, that was when I started to care more.
That’s very interesting. In my experience, I was born in the U.S., but I don’t know if I was aware of my difference until later in elementary/middle school. That was when it started to matter more—like what you brought for lunch, and why you smelled like crayfish [laughs].
Yeah. It’s always someone else who tells you, and then you’re aware.
I’ve had those moments with food too. I remember it was international food day [at school]. I live with my father in the U.S., and he’s not the best cook—I mean, he’s pretty decent at cooking, but I was just so eager to share my culture with people and share what I like to eat at home with people. And again, it was all about me at the time not having the thought that “Oh, they’re going to think I’m weird,” or “Oh, they’re going to think I smell bad,” or all that stuff. And so my dad went and ordered waakye, which is like rice and beans. And so when he brought it, one of the teachers, she was like going around trying everybody’s food, and then when she came to mine she was like, she was scared. And that’s when it really sunk in for me that when it comes to anything that’s African, people suddenly see it as primitive and just exotic, in a scary way, and it’s just odd.
I remember another time too—like I love the bottom of burnt jollof, like I just love it, I don’t know why [laughs]. I’m not a traditional person who will eat eggs for breakfast, it’s really just whatever is there and how much time I have. So before going to school, I had the burnt part of the jollof because it was convenient. So I walked into school, and into class, and then this girl said she wouldn’t sit next to me because I smelled bad. The teacher came and hugged me and comforted me … which was kind of uplifting for me. But in those times, it was just really like pivotal moments where I started to see that being Ghanaian, or being African, was like this ugly thing that was just bent backwards.
Yeah. I can relate to that. It wasn’t until—well, I grew up in most of my schools being one of very few, if not the only, African student. It wasn’t until maybe high school that I found a couple of other African friends, and then by the time I got to college it became cool to be African. So that’s been a different experience as well. Especially in the last few years, where African culture has become more trendy, in a sense. African culture is in the spotlight in a different way than it has been in the past. What are your views on that?
Yes, especially when it comes to Afrobeats music, African prints, and things of that nature. It does open up a conversation, and I can’t say that I hate the fact that it is more so out there now. I feel like it’s almost, I guess, gratifying for me, or at least for the elementary-school- and middle-school- me, just to see my African-American friends who were, back then, you know, being mean or making fun of me for my Africanness now wanting to cling onto some parts of their Africanness as well. I don’t know, I feel like as long as people … I mean, I hate when it becomes a trend, in the sense of like waist beads being worn out, just because—I mean, like people treat it like it’s a nose piercing. I think that for me, when people are taking bits of African culture without the context of it, without it’s original context, is when it becomes bothersome. But I think as far as just promoting it in mainstream culture—do it, but don’t take it out of what it’s really supposed to be. Don’t take it out of its context in a way that then insults it. Or just also don’t claim it as your own as if you were the creators of that thing, because we do have a lot of magazines or media platforms and use like bantu knots or box braids and—
And call it something crazy.
Yeah! So it’s like you don’t get to rename who I am. You don’t get to put language on what I belong to or what I come from. I think that’s where things kind of just clash for me.
You don’t get to rename who I am. You don’t get to put language on what I belong to or what I come from.
So then, in regards to things that shaped your concept of beauty, would you say that it was more than just outward appearances, but also who you were as a person? As far as like...even culturally—people expressing disdain or fear or hesitancy or not understanding who you were and where you were coming from?
Yeah, even having this conversation, like now … I don’t really go back to those times in my mind space. But I do think that beauty or the presence of beauty always, for me, went back to how good you were at being able to take off who you were. Just how good you were at being able to move between worlds. A lot of my friends then were different at home, but as soon as they stepped into the school space, they put on a different face.
If you could send a letter to your younger self, what would you tell her?
I feel like there’s something about me back then that I miss. And by “me back then,” I mean the younger me—let’s say, ages seven through twelve? Just because I felt that I was more free, in a sense. I don’t think I held onto things in a way that was hurtful to me. I feel like now, I really hold on, and I obsess, and I allow my mind to be a space for negativity at times. And I think really, maybe because I’m not intentional enough, I feel that I’ve become a bit passive, especially with my spiritual life. Because my spiritual life then builds up my physical interactions with the world, of course. But I find myself being more passive, or just feeling like I’m dull. [Back then], I was deeply engaged with the world around me, with what I interacted with and what I did. And it might also be because I’m a college student working five out of seven days of the week, and just going through the motions of work-class-work-class. Waking up at seven, showering, going to class, and not making the time. But then I feel like I’m on social media more than I’d like to be …
So I think I just miss those intentional moments of silence, where I’d built something for myself away from the prying world, if the world can be called that. But yeah, just that freedom of giving myself space, free from the opinion or permission of others.